Thursday, April 1, 2010

Up in the Nausea

Writing for Slate.com, Dennis Lim condemns the film Up in the Air for failing to transfer the economic realities of 2009 to the big screen, but he seems especially determined to knee-cap its director, Jason Reitman:
Whatever Reitman's original intentions, Up in the Air has become a movie about its own significance. The director, an avid believer in his own press, has suggested that it is nothing less than "the portrait of 2009." I honestly don't know what the film has to say about 2009—other than that it's kind of tough out there—and my guess is that Reitman's claim (which echoes the abundant critical praise for the movie's "eloquence" and "prescience") has something to do with the long history of evasion and denial in American cinema when it comes to matters of work and the workplace. 
Whatever Lim's original intentions, his review became a column about his own navel. Its focus on the film's director would be trivially unseemly if it weren't also such a glaring example of the tedious strain of film reviewing that reduces to sniping celebrity gossip. The piece to which he links is an even more glaring example, not that it rescues his position.

No, Up in the Air has not "become a film about its own significance," whatever that would mean, but I will award Lim a copper star for the slightly accurate claim that it fails to encapsulate the economic woes of 2009. It's true. It doesn't matter, but it's true enough.

It fails to give expression to the particular woes of 2009 in the sense that it gives expression to the woes of the entire post-war economic order, and -- why stop there? -- the human condition, in and beyond all economic orders to date. Which is to say, Paul Mealing and LarryNiven are exactly right to cite Up in the Air as a film-length exposition of Sartrean bad faith.

The film's main character, played very effectively by George Clooney, has constructed a career, mode of life, and even a full-blown creed on a studied repudiation of human attachments: he neglects family, counts hotel rooms and airplane interiors as home, and renounces any ambition beyond a specific mileage count in a frequent flyer program. He relishes his role as a consultant who drops in on workplaces to sack employees, work that allows him to hone his detachment into a sort of art of emotional and verbal manipulation. He enters into a sexual tryst with a woman, played not quite as effectively by Vera Farmiga, who characterizes herself as the Clooney character with a vagina, although we soon find she is considerably more connected to conventional life than she has been willing to let on. As their sexual relationship deepens to romance (at least for Clooney's character), and as family circumstances force themselves into his purview in unexpected ways, he is forced to acknowledge some distance between his avowed principles and his impulses, longings, and sentiments.

These are only the film's two most obvious instances of a divide between a character's outward and inward representations, or in other terms, the tensions between existence and essence. The film is replete with characters accepting, rejecting, and agonizing over roles, functions, ideals, masks, histories, schemes, identities -- at one point, the three main characters literally don name tags to crash a conference in the guise of people they don't know.

The characters handle the tension in different ways and with varying consequences, up to and including death in one instance, but what I find amazing about the film -- what I am still amazed not to have found -- is that it declines to back away from the darkest ramifications of the tension, even to the final scene. Whereas a weaker version of the same story would have papered over it all with a romantic deus ex machina -- how easy to picture the two main characters rushing into a teary embrace in an airport -- this film is bold enough to end without having answered, but rather to have underscored, its animating question: what are we to make of ourselves?

The guys at The Film Talk discussed this film a short while back.*


----
* This was a few podcasts before The Film Talk got in the proper flow of thanking me personally for helping fund their fine podcast. They've since corrected that oversight, beginning here and then here. The navel-gazing in this addendum is acceptable, even noble, because it appears in an end note.

1 comment:

Paul P. Mealing said...

Very good review, Dale - even better than mine, I think.

You touch on an aspect that I only glossed over: the principle 3 characters' own self-discoveries that they were all living a lie in their own way.

Regards, Paul.